Suzuki is making its boldest bid yet for a slice of the New Zealand small car market with the new 1.5-litre five-door Swift hatchback.
The Suzuki will compete with a raft of cars including Ford's ultra-capable Fiesta - arguably the best small hatch on the market - Mazda's 3, Hyundai's Getz, Honda's Jazz, the Mitsubishi Colt and the Nissan Micra.
The new Suzuki conforms to the current vogue for high-waistlines and glass areas which follow a reverse-wedge, tapering upwards and backwards from the windscreen.
The window treatment - and even something about the car's stance - suggest the BMW Mini, but unlike the much more expensive German car, the Swift has eminently-useable rear seat legroom.
There are big, vertically-styled headlights, a deep chin spoiler and rounded taillight clusters that hint at Toyota's Echo and curve over the car's haunches to flow forward and join the wedge-shaped styling line.
The BMW Mini effect is noticeable, too, when you view the Swift square-on from the rear.
Suzuki is bullish on pricing.
There are two models, the base model GLX, and the more upmarket Ltd, each with a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearboxes.
GLXs cost $18,990 and $20,400; the Ltds are $20,400 and $21,800.
Both cars are powered by a 16-valve, multi-point fuel-injected, 1490cc four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels.
It develops maximum power of 75kW at 6000rpm and peak torque of 133Nm at 4000rpm and provides quite lively performance - Suzuki quotes a 10-second time for the sprint from standstill to 100km/h for the manual.
The Swift is the first of a new range of vehicles designed to take Suzuki from a big player on the domestic Japanese market into a strong force worldwide.
For that reason Suzuki concentrated on giving the Swift sharp handling, good ride, good levels of equipment - especially on the safety front - chic looks and a solid on-road feel.
Suzuki NZ sees the Swift as being pivotal in achieving its aim of lifting sales from 1330 vehicles in 2004 to 1850 in 2006.
As far as the Swift alone is concerned, Suzuki NZ is out to match - or surpass - the roughly 1100 sales a year of the Hyundai Getz and Honda Jazz.
What you get
Both models have 15-inch diameter wheels, shod with 185/60 R15 tyres.
ABS anti-skid braking with electronic brake force distribution is standard.
Standard equipment includes power steering, air-conditioning with pollen filter, dual front airbags, a six-speaker Compact Disc sound system with controls on the steering wheel, electrically-wound windows and electrically-adjustable exterior mirrors, keyless entry and immobiliser.
The leather-covered, three-spoke steering wheel is tilt-adjustable, and there are two front and one rear cabin cupholders.
The driver's seat is height-adjustable and the rear seatback split folds 60/40. There are three rear seat head restraints.
Both cars have three-point seatbelts in all five seating positions.
The Ltd model adds side and curtain airbags, driving lights and alloy wheels.
On the road
Car makers frequently make grandiose claims for their small cars, saying they offer levels of refinement and ride quality that would do large cars proud.
Usually, claims is all they are.
So when Suzuki said the new Swift rode like a much bigger car and was quiet on chip surfaces journalists at last week's media launch uttered a universal, if unspoken, "yeah, right."
But it proved to be so. The car felt solid on the road and it was surprisingly-quiet on coarse-chip-sealed roads. There was, indeed, some similarities with much larger cars, though many larger cars are much noisier than the Swift on chip-seal.
The five-speed manual shifted quickly and smoothly, though some drivers found its clutch action too abrupt.
The manual had considerably more sparkle than the auto. The cars we sampled had done fewer than 1000 kilometres and performance might improve, but on this brief acquaintance I would have liked a little more punch.
Steering response is good and the car corners flatly and showed no real vices.
Suzuki took the unusual step of allowing us to drive the Swift on a racetrack.
The idea was to do four laps in a manual version and four in an automatic.
Driving the Swift on the track gave an excellent impression of very nicely-tuned handling, with direct and accurate steering, minimal body roll, high levels of grip, and a forgiving chassis. Understeer was only really evident in extremis, and the general feel was of a finely-balanced and benign chassis.
Some of our number had queried the effectiveness of a disc/drum brake set-up but the brakes held up very well to an afternoon of abuse, with little smell or smoking and little fade. In fact I found they were so effective I was outbraking myself for corners, getting on the anchors way too early.
However, barrelling up to Manfeild's Coca Cola Corner - the speedo flicked a touch over 150km/h at the braking point - under the watchful eyes of the car's owners and with the expanse of kitty litter waiting for you if you don't brake in time. Well, it tends to get you on to the brakes early. Well it does me. A colleague much versed in lapping Manfeild was leaving his braking a tad later and hitting the pedal much harder.
At the end of the afternoon the cars were in one piece and they had left a very favourable impression indeed.
In the Swift, Suzuki has a highly-credible new small car which deserves to do well.
Photos by Suzuki
Suzuki Swift specifications
Engine: 1490cc inline four. 16 valves. Multi-point fuel injection
Maximum power: 75kW at 6000rpm
Peak torque: 133Nm at 4000rpm
Transmission: Front-wheel drive. Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox
Front: MacPherson strut and coil spring
Rear: torsion beam and coil springs
Front track: 1470mm
Rear track: 1480mm
Ground clearance: 140mm
Kerb weight: 1040kg (manual); 1060kg (auto)
Fuel tank capacity: 43 litres
Luggage capacity: 213 litres (rear seatback upright); 562 litres (rear seatback folded)